Monday, April 7, 2008

Technology, Education, and the Next Generation

I've always believed that kids are capable of way more than we give them credit for. Orson Scott Card explored this idea in Ender's Game. As I've watched my own kids grow, I've seen the depth of capability that hasn't been remotely tapped by current schooling.

When my son was four, he could name any dinosaur you pointed at, from the ever present Tyrannosaurus Rex and Apatasaurus to the much more obscure Compsagnathus and Troodon. His favorite was Deinonychus. His ability to soak up information on this topic was astounding to me. Lilly is astounding in her ability (and it is for real; my wife is good friends with her mom). And, if you are a software developer and want to be humbled, check out Dmitri Gaskin's Google Tech Talk. Dmitri is 12 years old and is a contributor to Drupal. I have no doubt in his ability to code JavaScript circles around me.

Robert Cringely explored the topic of the effects of technology and change on education in a series of posts recently. The gist being that what education means and the whole process of achieving an education is about the go through a major upheaval. Technology, change, and access to information are all combining to alter not just how we learn but what the end-result of learning is.

This is not news to anybody in a technology industry who is continually scrambling to keep up with the changes in their field. If I had left my education when I finished college in 1996, I don't know if I would even be employable today. I certainly wouldn't be doing anything interesting.

The thing that kids like Dmitri show is that the revolution in education is already taking place. The Internet has provided these kids with the access to information that allows them to reach into their own potential. Dmitri did not become competent enough to give a Google Tech Talk through his school learning. It was because he has a passion and the information is now available for him to follow that passion.

Kids like Dmitri are on the leading edge of this wave. A wave that will quickly show that knowing how to learn something will become the most valuable skill; the trained skill will become secondary. This, in my mind, is the most compelling aspect of Unschooling. When a child is interested in something, their potential is truly amazing. Unlocking that potential is something that our traditional educational institutions have not done very well. In my generation, it was very challenging for a kid to excel in spite of the system. Today, it is easy and becoming easier.

That doesn't mean that training will not be important. A doctor is still going to need a lot of training to become skilled at her profession. However, as the pace of change increases, the skill of being able to continue learning will differentiate the best doctors from the so-so doctors. Technology will help, but it will still require people to drive it. Of course, this is where Dmitri's, my son's, and Lilly's generation will have a serious advantage: knowing how to find information is something they will have grown up with.

For those of us who are guiding this generation, we need to be careful. Our own innate fears and prejudices about learning could serve as a stumbling block for those we are trying to help. Technology and information access have changed the educational landscape, and we need to understand and work within the new boundaries. For some of us, that will be easier than others. No matter what, though, it is going to change. And, just like learning a foreign language, if we aren't doing everything we can to become fluent, idomatic speakers, we will be left lacking understanding.

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